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Nyiri, Scenic Spots: Chinese Tourism, the State, and Cultural Authority, 2006

Pidhainy reviews the book for H-Travel, August 2006, credit H-Net.
December 31, 2005
Pal Nyiri. Scenic Spots: Chinese Tourism, the State, and Cultural Authority. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. xii + 134 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-98588-6.

Reviewed by: Ihor Pidhainy, East Asian Department, University of Toronto.
Published by: H-Travel (August, 2006)

Unravelling Chinese Tourism and Tourists: How and Why Do They See the Things That They Do?

Pal Nyiri, who is the director of the Program in Applied Anthropology at Macquarie University, has written a short academic work on Chinese tourism. He is successful in drawing a general, if not argumentative, picture of the state of Chinese tourism, both at home and abroad. The book will appeal to students of contemporary China, anthropology, tourism studies and travel writing. The work is not perfect, though, and some of its problems are noted below.

Nyiri argues that Chinese tourism is, to a large degree, subject to the control and creation of the People's Republic of China. His overall focus is in describing, analyzing and commenting upon the relationship between the state and Chinese tourism. He attempts to answer the question, how are tourist sites constructed in China by the state.

Writing from an anthropological perspective, Nyiri situates his work in relation to the growing field of tourist studies. In particular, he calls upon the work of Dean MacCannell and James Clifford in his approach to his materials, mixing textual and ethnographic research. Nyiri notes that much of tourism studies has been concerned with western tourism or western approaches to tourism, thus his own work serves as a corrective to this approach (p. ix). In itself this is a welcome addition to tourism studies and is part of the growing process of integration of area studies within disciplinary fields.

Nyiri opens his book with a good introduction to the travel industry in China. Beginning with a review of the re-opening of tourism in China in the 1970s, he draws a connection between current travel practices to those of literati travellers of the late imperial period and presents a blueprint of how the Chinese state has built on this older tradition by creating its own tradition. He examines the government policies and regulations by which this occurs, and notes the extension of the "scenic spots" of traditional tourism to include modern places such as museums, zoos and theme parks. He delineates the various stages required for the state to manufacture these sites, including setting their physical boundaries, organizing their interiors, creating itineraries of performances and festivals to enhance them, and advertising them through various media.

Nyiri's sympathies as an academic and tourist are brought forth in his personal exploration of travel spots in China. He presents three accounts of trips to very different "scenic spots" situated in Sichuan province: Emei Mountain, dotted with ancient Buddhist temples and popular with both Chinese and foreigners; Jiuzhaigou, a natural reserve recognized by UNESCO and extremely popular among Chinese tourists; and the nearby town of Songpan, which has no state tourism infrastructure but is very popular with Western backpackers. Nyiri uses these sites in making his case that westerners and Chinese view tourist sites very differently, and that businesses present these sites in accord with the tourists who visit the sites. In particular, Nyiri presents a vision of the kitschy Chinese state site which mixes popular tradition, nationalism and ersatz world culture. The question answered in this chapter is "what are the sources of cultural authority that enshrine scenic spots." The answer is that these places must be "themed," classified and endorsed by the government, structured internally in the manner of traditional views of sites, and commodified and standardized for the entertainment of the tourists who visit. It is only in accidental spots such as Songpan where this is not done, and which Nyiri offers as an alternative to state tourism.

In chapter 3, the longest and most complex in his book, Nyiri deals with the question of how the state uses tourism and tourist sites for its own propaganda. He delineates a very different Chinese story from that of other tourist industries. He contrasts it with the older western ideal of pursuit of the "authentic," the Soviet model of "mobilization, education and self-betterment" (p. 62), and the newer western ideal of tourist sites that challenge the visitor and the tourist, who read these sites in whatever way they desire. The Chinese tourist, however, is "one who learns the canonical representations of the sites he is planning to visit" (emphasis in original, p. 64). Tourism is a state operation, activated by government and, though its sites are financed as joint ventures, they are operated by agencies and individuals who work closely with officials and state bureaucracy. Furthermore the sites are constructed similarly and argue for a general essentialism of China and its culture. Most of the voices of Chinese tourists that Nyiri presents read these sites as authentic, without a questioning attitude. However, he does include materials that reflect different directions that can be taken. For example, he compares China's situation with that of Russia, Japan and Peru, arguing against a single modernist, development paradigm--each country having followed its own trajectory of development. His use of comparative models is one of the pleasant surprises in the work and is quite stimulating in provoking further reflection in tourism studies.

In the final chapter, Nyiri addresses the question of the future of Chinese travel. He does this through an examination of Chinese going abroad. He notes how earlier migrants are now valorized as "vanguards of modernity" (p. 99) and how positively the modern Chinese media portrays them. He also examines the recent Chinese tourists overseas--their views on places in Europe and the representation of these sites to the Chinese in general. He then darkly concludes that "the Chinese state ... will attempt to assert its cultural authority over foreign landscapes" (p. 108).

There are a few problems with this work. Nyiri's arguments and examples are not always fully developed. In chapter 2, for example, he limits his description of his visit to Emei Mountain to two paragraphs. Questions such as how the Chinese mix a legitimate past (i.e., a thousand year old temple) and recent patriotic elements, and what happens when history offers more than one interpretation, go unanswered due to a lack of presentation. Another problem is in his fairly rigid reading of the Chinese tourist industry and Chinese tourists. Nyiri is aware of the difficulties of this position, as he includes voices that go against this reading. For example, a middle-aged traveler is quoted with regards as to how he travels: "When I have time I travel alone, taking buses. That way I can decide how long to spend where. That's the best. But when I am pressed for time I travel with a group" (p. 86). Nevertheless, the extent to which Chinese tourists create their own itineraries and have different views from those proscribed is not pursued. Nyiri also does not reflect on the problem of himself as a tourist in China and how this affects his work as an anthropologist. This is a common problem in the field and has been nicely addressed by Tim Oakes in the opening to his work, Tourism and Modernity in China (1998). As Oakes is often cited in this book and provides a blurb for the dusk jacket, his insights into this problem ought to have been considered.

Finally, I have a quibble with the author's carelessness in dealing with Chinese sources. In discussing the traditional concept of "scenic" spot, Nyiri presents erroneous information on the etymology of the Chinese expression fengjing. He states that the term goes back to the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.E), claiming that Chinese nature writing began by at least the beginning of the imperial period (p. 7). The claim is off by several centuries, as scholars generally agree that nature writing only became important in China during the Six dynasties period (220-589 B.C.E.). Nyiri's information is based on an incorrect citation; the dictionary that he used actually refers to the Jinshu (History of Jin), completed by Fang Xuanling between 644 and 646, as the source of the citation.[1]

In sum, Pal Nyiri has produced a useful monograph, which readers will find of interest in their research, whether in tourist studies, contemporary politics, or anthropology.


[1]. See Endymion Wilkinson, Chinese History: A Manual (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Centre, 2000), 503.

Citation: Ihor Pidhainy. "Review of Pal Nyiri, Scenic Spots: Chinese Tourism, the State, and Cultural Authority," H-Travel, H-Net Reviews, August, 2006. URL:

Republished with permission from H-Net Reviews.